Emotional triggers: how to handle them

Handle your emotional triggers (Emotional wellness series)

by Sheri McGregor, M.A.

emotional triggersAs July comes to a close and August begins, the whisper of fall stirs on the horizon. I love this time of year, but since my son is estranged, the phrase, “back-to-school,” can trigger sadness.

Memories of the antsy anticipation of my children at summer’s close, looking forward (or sometimes dreading) the start of a new school year was a constant, a cycle through the years as steady as the seasons. Now, for me and many parents whose adult sons or daughters are estranged, old cycles we once enjoyed now highlight the break, and connect to our grief.

In earlier emotional wellness series articles, I wrote about unexpected feelings, and how awareness can be a tool to handle them. There are links to those articles at the bottom. In short, I suggested planning ahead by taking some time to consider what events, dates, or people might trigger distress over your estranged adult child. Being aware of emotional triggers ahead of time can help you prepare.

The close of summer with its promise of routine schedules, cooler days, and the advent of the holidays can be just such a trigger for me. Perhaps for you too. Read on for ways to handle your emotional triggers, maintain peace of mind, and conquer emotional distress.

Emotional triggers: Do you react or respond?

The word “react,” implies instantaneous action – – and that’s not always bad. But when it comes to reactions to emotional distress, a well-considered response is often better. That’s why planning ahead, and being aware of your emotional triggers is wise. Then you can catch yourself before you react without thinking – – and fall into negative behavior that will only make things worse.

Typical reactions to negative emotional triggers might include:

  • A bad mood
  • Overeating, overdrinking, slouching on the sofa
  • Avoiding social commitments
  • Falling into a “victim” mentality or defeated chain of thought

Obviously, negative reactions can impact our lives. If we’re in a funk, our bad mood can negatively affect the people we love. We may displace anger onto the people closest to us.

When we overdrink, overeat, and slouch around feeling sorry for ourselves, our health may be impacted. A state of inertia, coupled with bad habits, can further decrease energy, and fuel more bad habits.

Avoiding others can isolate us. And falling into a victim mentality or chain of thought that keeps us focused on the hurt can darken our outlook for the future. All of these can lead to decreased productivity and procrastination, which can then lower our self-esteem, fuel more negative thinking, and maybe even impact us economically.

Emotional triggers: How to combat them

First, when you catch yourself allowing any emotional triggers to pull you down (or anytime you’re feeling down about your estranged child), tell yourself to stop. Take a few calming breaths. Come up with a few simple phrases to get you back to the present. Have them ready so you can turn to them when the need arises. For me, those phrases might go something like this:

  • What’s happened is done. For now, I cannot change things. I can only change my response.

Second, focus on something more positive. That might mean thinking of things in your life right now that you are grateful for, or appreciating the good memories for the enjoyment they once gave you. Perhaps you can pat yourself on the back for the good you did in your estranged son or daughter’s life.

Third, take back control of the moment. That might mean soothing yourself with a few kind words. Something like this:

  • I’ve lived through the worst of this. I am rebuilding my life in a way that pleases me. I choose to take control of my thoughts, my feelings, and my future. No longer will I allow my estranged adult child to hold me hostage to hurt and pain. I am healing, and moving forward on a positive path.

When we make the decision to move forward confidently despite hurt that has been inflicted on us, we empower ourselves. Emotional triggers hold the potential for setbacks, but we can overcome them, and turn them into strength builders.

emotional triggersLovely path, or rut of despair?

When faced with a situation that triggers hurt and pain, I like to imagine myself in the serenity of a beautiful natural space. Walking along the path, the sunlight filters in through a leafy canopy, an orchestra of birdsong fills the air, and a pleasant breeze whispers against my skin. I have the choice whether to let intruding thoughts lead me down a less inviting path that’s filled with negative thinking I know does me no good.

That negative thought pattern might go something like this:

Why did this happen? I don’t think I’ll ever get over this. How can I, when it hurts so much? I’m not sure I’ll ever be truly happy again. Just when I think things are going well, something reminds me, and I’m right back where I started . . . hurting. Will this pain ever end?

Each of us has our own set of dark thoughts. Most of us parents of estranged adults have been there, done that. And we know that sort of thinking only leads to longing and despair.

We can only control ourselves.

It’s easy to wallow awhile. But I know stepping down that path only digs a deeper groove into negativity, and imprisons me in a rut that blocks my view of what’s good in my life. Or, as it looks in my visualization of the forest path, blocks my view of the trees, and muffles the lilting birdsong. The more times I allow myself to wallow, the harder it may be to climb back into the sunlight.

Mood brighteners

Some people can turn off negative thoughts and brighten their mood with music. If this works for you, use it. Sing along! Others can turn on a funny movie that gives their mind a welcome break. Exercise can be a positive habit that creates an uplifting feeling of strength and control (plus it’s healthy).

Emotional triggers: Positive questions can help

Just as you can allow yourself to dig into a rut of despair, a few good questions can lead you up and out. Consider these:

  • Which would I rather be? Upset, angry, and sad? Or optimistic, grateful, and glad?
  • Is there anything I can do to change things now? If yes, make a plan. If no, accept that reality.
  • Are my thoughts stuck in the past?
  • What can I focus on right now that will make me feel better?

You can plan ahead and come up with your own ready menu of feel-better sayings, questions, thoughts, or activities that deal with triggered emotions in a positive way.

It feels good to focus on what makes us happy. And there is evidence that takingcare of our emotions and developing a positive outlook may have health benefits. A 2006 study reported on in the journal, Psychosomatic Medicine, showed that a positive emotional style reduced the likelihood of contracting a virus. Sometimes, staying positive is s easier said than done … but with a little advance planning, self-control and determination, we can conquer our emotional triggers.

In my book, Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children, you’ll find the latest research, helpful tools and techniques. You really can be done with the crying–and enjoying your life.

Copyright Notice: All content of any post or page found on any page at this site is protected by U.S. and international copyright laws. To share with others, provide a link to the page where the content is found. Reposting of any content is not permitted without express permission. Please see Copyright Notice/Restrictions in the right-hand sidebar for complete copyright notice

Related articles:

Unexpected emotions

Awareness: A tool to handle emotions

Related external links:

Positive emotional style predicts resistence to illness. . . .

Copyright Notice: All content of any post or page found on any page at this site is protected by U.S. and international copyright laws. To share with others, provide a link to the page where the content is found. Reposting of any content is not permitted without express permission. Please see Copyright Notice/Restrictions in the right-hand sidebar for complete copyright notice


Join the newsletter

Subscribe to get our latest content by email.

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

14 thoughts on “Emotional triggers: how to handle them

  1. Sue N.

    Ty to all the Moms who have written here. I find it so helpful to know that I am not alone in dealing with the sadness of estrangement. It has been almost 3 yrs for me since my 50 yr old daughter made the excruciating decision to cut me out of her life. I’ve come to the point where I accept it now, however, each day has a veil of sadness, all the same. Thank goodness for my younger daughter & grandchildren who are lifesavers for me, even though they live 1,000 km away, here in Canada. They keep me going.
    Ty, Sheri for your emails which never fail to come when I so desperately need them. As I look across the magnificent St. Lawrence River from here in SE Ontario to the NY side, I’m keeping you all in my thoughts.

  2. Marianne Z.

    Reading your book, and these blog posts along with the responses has made a huge difference in my life. Like most of us, I have had a troubled relationship with my daughter who is my only child. She’s 48 years old and on several occasions she has estranged me for months at a time and my granddaughter who is 17 is now picking up on her mothers behavior, I was extremely close to my granddaughter and helped raise her but she now is also not talking to me.
    Today is my 71st birthday and my daughter sent me a text. Wishing me a happy birthday. She also suggested that we get together for coffee to talk. We have not seen each other in six months and they have been few and far between texts. I have very mixed feelings about this. I think I had I gotten this text from her before I read your book. I would have once again jumped at the opportunity and graveled at her feet. But now I find that I am owning the reality that I am not only hurt, but then I’m angry with her for abusing me in so many ways. So I really don’t know how to respond. I would, of course love to meet with her and try to reconcile , but I don’t want to meet with her unless I know that reconciliation is her motive for meeting. How do I approach this any help or suggestions would be greatly appreciated. You seem like such a wise group of mothers.

    1. candleinthewind

      Ask yourself, what do I want? What makes me happy? The meeting is only a suggestion. Do you want to ‘talk’, or will this be an excuse for her to further barrage you with criticisms that will pile on more hurt? Be very honest with yourself about what you feel able to manage emotionally. If you meet, put a time limit on it. Make sure you do nice things before and after the meet. Have a pick-me-up plan. What does the term ‘reconciliation’ really mean in practical terms? Who would pay for any therapist, for example, never mind the coffee? Do you want to go through that process, yet undefined? Would you prefer to spend your time doing things you know will bring you pleasure with people you know will be respectful and caring? Your daughter could do many a lovely thing other than meet for coffee and ‘chat’ – like giving a present that expects nothing from you. Decide what you are prepared to give in the name of any reconciliation – what is your answer if she asks for money, or any other demands? Look to your heart, put your own needs before hers (be realistic, be brave).

      1. Diane H.

        Bravo, candleinthewind, bravo!!
        So appreciate your input where so many are struggling with broken hearts that often only look inward. We forget to expect love, respect and the niceties that we should. Thanks for the reminder!!

    2. Susan

      Marianne (hugs) 8 yrs in November I walked away to protect myself. Candleinthewind has some excellent ideas. Protect your heart nice public place (your choice), any abuse or hurtful comments walk away. These supposedly adult children often seen to thrive on walking back into our lives and causing as much chaos and heartache as they can and then walking away again. At 67 I’ve decided my time left is for me to do the things I love to do and enjoy my life. No one has the license to ruin your life by walking in and out and causing pain. Thanks to Sheri we are here for each other.

      1. Karen P.

        Hello to all-I’m new to this site but I have read both of Sheri’s books which I agree have been wonderful! My question for all of you is…how do you handle your own sibs continuing a relationship with your estranged child? I want my sisters to have a relationship with my adult daughter but it’s so hurtful that they get pictures & updates of my three grandchildren when I know nothing. It’s so excruciatingly painful yet I know I have no control over that. I do wonder why my sisters don’t show more support as in telling my daughter that it feels wrong. Am I the one who’s wrong in thinking this way? Thanks for any advice you can give me! KP

        1. Peony

          Hi Karen,

          You’re not in any way “wrong” to feel the way that you do. I am in a very similar place, I have zero contact with my EC and Grandson, but my parents do. Like your sisters, they have not told my EC that their behavior is wrong. Selfishly, they support them in their position against me so they can have a closer bond with MY family. It’s betrayal, plain and simple. As you stated we have no control over others so I have had to significantly reduce contact with my parents in order to protect myself. I also have a strict policy when talking with them that the subject is off limits, although I think they choose to not bring it up out of loyalty to my children, not my boundary. I am currently working on gathering strength to go no contact with them and break the cycle of betrayal and abuse for good. For me, I cant force a connection with people who are willfully betraying me. They have helped my son purchase a car and a home….I am beyond.

          Have you talked to your sisters and let them know how it makes you feel? Because if they know it’s painful and keep doing it, that is a clear message. Maybe try putting some boundaries in place that you don’t discuss it. I think it’s important to mention that if your sisters were speaking kindly of you at all they likely wouldn’t have a relationship with your daughter. These adult children don’t buddy up with those on the side of their estranged parent in any way. Something to think about as you consider the extent of what’s going on here. My EC went to my parents for back up for one reason, they knew they could. Why are your sisters choosing loyalty to your daughter and not you? This is worth a discussion. I think you’ll gain a lot of insight from their response. All that said, my heart goes out to you. Know that you’re not alone and this is a place to find support from those that have been there.

  3. Skadi

    I can relate to this post. My son has been estranged for almost nine years now. Fortunately, the triggers don’t catch me off guard quite the way they did in the beginning.

    One thing I did a few years back to help combat the feeling of loss—before I realized it would probably be a permanent estrangement—was to set up a bank account into which I continue to deposit a hundred dollars on occasions that I would have normally given him a gift, specifically his birthday and Yuletide. I’ve come to accept there will likely never be a reconciliation, so I suppose I’ll leave it to him in my will, or donate it to a cause in his name.

    As time marched on, the stress of grief and loss took quite a toll; I watched my reflection transform into a haggard, worn-out shadow of my former self, making me shudder and turn away. I imagined my son showing up, seeing my deteriorated appearance as a reflection of his revised view of me, so I made the decision that I would take care of myself in order to be at least some semblance of my best. I still have a way to go, but special occasions now remind me to make an effort to be kind to myself in lieu of the love he generously shared with me for the first twenty years of his life.

    Although I no longer hope or dream that he’ll return, I can once again—without all-consuming, gut-wrenching grief—think of myself as the person he was proud to call his mother.

    1. rparents Post author

      Skadi1, This is so true. I had a light bulb moment years ago, and realized (as I say in the book somewhere) that if my son ever did return, I didn’t want him to find me looking and feeling horrible! It’s better to take care of ourselves!!!

      Hugs to you,
      Sheri McGregor

  4. Juanita

    It’s been quite awhile since I’ve added a comment. I hope that all of you have had something really good and positive to happen in your relationships with your children. So I have three positive that gave occurred 1. My oldest child is now living with me and it’s due to a medical issue. We certainly have our moments but for the most of it we are learning to live with each other in a good mom and daughter relationship. She has accepted jesus christ and she is getting better with each working day. 2. My son allowed both of y girls to his house for a baby shower about two months ago first time I had all three of my children in the same room for longer than a hour in about 15years, it was great and I got lots of pictures it felt so good to have my children together again I was just happy as could be and I’m not sure if they understood how much happiness that brought to me or not but it was like feeling like a normal person again everyone that I loved was in the same room and I could admire them a touch them and talk to them I mean it was worth all the effort of going, I just didn’t want it to end 3rd I have twin grandsons born in the month of October I haven’t gotten to see anything but pictures of them yet and didn’t get to go to the birth because of covid 19 grap but my youngest is fine and so are my grandsons. So I’m going to say that what more could a mom ask for than a healthy daughter and healthly grandsons. I just wanted share some of the positives in life since you. So these are the three things I am grateful for this year because seeing my kids all together has been a long awaited prayer. Happy Thanksgiving to all and I hope each of you have a positive happen in your lives. Juanita

    1. Lizette L.

      Juanita, I am reading this almost three years after you wrote it. I hope you are in a better happy place, no matter where your children are. Keep on being the great mom you are, that you birthed these beautiful beings and they are functioning adults. Know that you are also MORE than a mom, you are a woman with values and value. Live your life fully.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *